St. Teresa of Avila was a Sixteenth Century Spanish Carmelite nun. She is credited with the reform of the Carmelite order, and she and St. John of the Cross together established the Discalced (“shoeless”) Carmelites.
I first encountered her when I was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame. Each of the dorms at Notre Dame has a chapel, under the patronage of a particular saint. Some of the dorm chapels proudly proclaim their saint’s name and/or have a statue or icon of their patron. The dorm I was in, although it had a rich liturgical life, didn’t advertise the name of its patron saint. When I served my term as dorm sacristan, I did some digging around and discovered our patron saint was St. Albert the Great – an august saint, but not necessarily a relatable figure for young women. I suggested that we rededicate our chapel to a female saint, and the search began. After several rounds of voting, we landed on St. Teresa of Avila. (The final choice may or may not have been influenced by the aforementioned sacristan dressing as St. Teresa and giving a lively monologue as the saint.)
One of the things that made me fall in love with St. Teresa of Avila was how down to earth she was. Although she was a saintly woman in her later years, her younger years were anything but perfect. As a teenager – reading the equivalent of romance novels and just being an overall handful – she was sent to live in a monastery. Unlike the other St. Theresa (Therese of Lisieux) she didn’t enter the monastery at a young age out of sheer devotion and love for God. She was sent there because her family couldn’t deal with her rambunctious behavior any longer.
She continued to feel drawn to a secular lifestyle, even after formally entering religious life. She was part of a monastic culture that was – at the time – excessively cushy. Many young women joined the monastery simply because they were unmarried and without any other options. It was not uncommon for nuns to live in comfort, entertain guests, and spend their recreation gossiping. Teresa struggled with all of that, until her mid-life conversion.
So, when Teresa admonished the nuns under her care to be more fervent and devout, to fight the temptations of the world – she spoke from experience. She knew all too well how strong a pull the world had, even for a monastic.
What I came to love even more about “Big Tess” (so nicknamed because of her big personality and tremendous contribution to the Church, and to distinguish her from the Little Flower) was her sense of humor, especially evident in her relationship with God. One of my favorite quotes of hers was, “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us!” This was a woman who knew the importance of not taking herself too seriously!
My favorite story of her, though, is of a time when she was traveling in terrible weather. As she was riding to her destination, she feel into the mud. The typical reaction, it seems, would either be one of frustration or holy acceptance. Teresa found the middle place – a tongue-in-cheek prayer. “Lord,” she said, “If this is how you treat your friends…it’s no wonder you have so few of them!”
It’s this blunt “realness” of her relationship with God that we have so much to learn from. Teresa’s piety wasn’t a false one. A woman who struggled for many years with prayer, she didn’t waste time with a surface level relationship with God. She poured out her heart to God, trusting him in all things. But, she also was honest with him. She didn’t mince words with God (or anyone else, for that matter) when she was frustrated. She simply – and often comically – turned over her frustrations to him.
I’ve only been married for six years, but already I can affirm the effectiveness of one of the best pieces of marriage advice I’ve ever received – to have a sense of humor with each other. Willingness to laugh (at ourselves, especially) has smoothed over many a rough patch in our marriage. But our humor has also served another purpose – it has cultivated intimacy. Even those who are not married have experienced the power of an “inside joke.” Most of us have experienced the strange and wonderful phenomenon of finally becoming close enough to someone that we can share jokes with each other. (Likewise, most of us have probably also experienced the awkwardness of telling a joke or sharing a humorous moment with someone who refuses to laugh along.) Strong and real bonds are formed through laughter – especially laughter in moments of frustration and disappointment.
This is what Teresa of Avila wants us to know about true intimacy with God. A relationship with God needs to be as “down to earth” as it is heavenly. We need to be willing to not only pour out of sorrows and petitions to God – but be willing to laugh with him. We need to be willing to share the occasional “inside joke” with him.
In a far more profound way, this is the message of the cross. Christ has conquered sin, conquered death and suffering. That doesn’t mean that suffering no longer exists, but it no longer has the final word. Any suffering – even something as silly as falling in a mud puddle – can be offered up to God in love. Suffering isn’t a laughing matter, but Christ enables us to find joy – and sometimes humor – in even the worst of circumstances.
St. Teresa of Avila, comedian and saint, pray for us!